It’s good to see that Wilfred starting its second season by fucking with us.
I like that about the show. Its key question, the one that drives almost all its drama and much of its comedy is: “What is Wilfred?” At one point, early in “Progress,” Wilfred asks Ryan if he wants to know who he is, why he can talk, what it all means. Naturally, when Wilfred asks, Ryan doesn’t want to hear the answer. So of course, we never find out. And that’s probably a good thing. The show needs that tension. But it’s also the clearest example of many that “Progress” exists primarily to deal with the mess from the first season.
But “dealing with” the mess doesn’t mean cleaning it up. Bizarre psychological comedy needs messiness. It means moving the mess around, making a giant pile of questions and weirdness for us to focus on. In addition to the “What is Wifred?” questions that permeate the series in a general sense, the finale left us with several cliffhangers. Wilfred was hit by a car, Jenna was threatening to leave with her boyfriend, Ryan was turning into an evil lawyer again, and the basement where he and Wilfred used to hang out? It wasn’t there anymore.
“Progress” gleefully jumps right into these things, rolling around and wallowing in the possibilities of that drama. It starts with Ryan in a mental institution, dreaming of awkward corporate meetings. His doctor is played by Robin Williams, bearded and low-key with a sparkle in his eye (there’s something about a beard that makes Williams 10 times more tolerable). “And remember, there’s no right or wrong answer,” says Williams’ character to Ryan. “It was a stress dream.” “That’s the right answer.”
Wilfred plays the institution straight at first, other than the dreams, leading to the best scene of the episode. Wilfred is in a wheelchair, manipulating Ryan, and Ryan flips out, not believing anything Wilfred says, including that he’s actually crippled. Sure, it ends up being conceptually similar to a scene from The Big Lebowski, but seeing Wilfred plaintively cry “Frisbeeeee!” as Ryan gives him cigarette burns is creepy and funny at the same time, and indicative of the tone that Wilfred seems to want to take.
Yet even as this is happening, there are cues that this is not what’s really happening. Ryan’s odd dreams grow more detailed. His doctor evades any kind of detailed answer. He aurally remembers Wilfred telling him that something’s wrong with the institution. The color scheme shifts during scenes in the institution, adopting the washed-out look of the dream sequences instead of the bright colors it started out with. It successfully prepares viewers for the insanity that follows, a fantasy breakout from the institution and the reveal that the dream was reality the whole time.
On one hand, the revelation that Ryan isn’t in the intitution, and that the basement does actually exist, acts as a reset button for the show. Jenna’s still an unattainable ideal, Ryan and Wilfred can still get high, and we don’t really see the consequences of Ryan's insanity. Yet Wilfred has done two things in “Progress” that demonstrate, well, progress. First, Ryan still has his job. The addition of a workplace will give the show an added dimension for introducing characters and storylines that its first season lacked. Second, we don’t know why Ryan’s closet/staircase was boarded up. Did he do it and forget about it? Just how crazy is this guy?
Aside from the narrative issues of the episode itself, I also think it was generally of a higher quality than the first season. While I consider those narrative issues in retrospect, I didn’t dwell on them while watching, as I tended to in the past. This time, I was more impressed with the increasing audacity of the episode. Ryan recognizing the phrase “It’s not your fault” and declaring “Wait. That’s from Good Will Hunting. You’re Robin Williams!” isn’t inherently funny. But I laughed anyway, because it was so impressively surprising. For a show to be gone for a year and come back with such a strange episode takes some confidence, but for it to do this so well takes skill and craft. I’m looking forward to see where Wilfred goes this season.